My first dive in Antarctica, 1989

An account of her first Antarctic dive by A. Wenden at Davis in 1989 as told to Annie Rushton, as part of the ANARE Jubilee Project, February 1996.

We went out to the ice edge just off Davis, both I and the dive supervisor did the first dive. Before I hit the water, I had spent a lot of time anticipating what I was actually going to encounter. I had a very firm expectation that all the benthic life off the Antarctic coast would be pretty poor compared to the temperate environment around Australian coastlines. I was sure it there would not be much here, and that what there was would not be particularly spectacular.

Diver being assisted with harness
Diver assisted with harness
Photo: G. Dixon
Antarctic diver getting into water
Antarctic diver getting into water
Photo: A. Breed
Diver in Antarctic waters
Diver in Antarctic waters
Photo: IMAX
We finally got all the gear on which was an exercise all in itself, and managed to slide over the edge of the ice and hit the water. In that first couple of seconds, I had my eyes opened literally and metaphorically. Instead of the anticipated scruffy, bare looking benthos, I looked down and saw a great profusion of really big algae, really big, brown kelp-like algae. There were red algae in there as well, and a whole lot of amazingly huge invertebrate life: big starfish in creams and pinks and oranges, really big, much bigger than the starfish you see in temperate areas.

Then I saw big anemones - they were enormous, about four times the size of any anemones that I had ever seen around Australia. There were amazing sea cucumbers in great profusion, a purplish burgundy colour. Although this was in 15 metres of water, it was so clear, absolutely the best visibility of any marine water I have ever jumped in to. And so, 15 metres meant nothing, you could see the bottom as if it was two feet below you.

Two expeditioners standing at dive hole monitoring operations
Monitoring diving operations
Photo: G. Dixon
Expeditioner assisting diver out of the water
Assisting diver from the water
Photo: G. Dixon
Diver just out of the water
Diver just out of the water
Photo: G. Dixon

I turned around and looked back at where I had come from. I had come in over the edge of about a foot of ice, but most of the sea ice is below the water line, so there was the best part of a metre depth of the most beautiful ice along the surface. You could see under the ice as it retreated - this dark, eerie, never ending vista stretching back as far as you could see.

The ice was the most extraordinary colour it is hard to describe - the brightest, most brilliant aqua blue that nature produces anywhere, quite luminous. The edge of it was draped in shards of brash, brilliant, crystallised ice. It was a beautiful day, very sunny with a very strong light, and the light twinkled off this ice, this amazing blue which retreated into the distance.

So I was looking at the bottom, and back at this wonderful ice, and then I saw movement with my peripheral vision. We were diving close to an island which was an Adelie penguin rookery, and as I turned around and looked, there were penguins all over the place. They had been up on the surface when we were making our preparations, wandering around all our dive operations. A group of them had decided to come for a swim and check us out. It was an extraordinary sight to see these penguins just zooming through the water, really looking like a school of fish, flying through the water, circling around us and going in between us - it was absolutely spectacular.

So between these glorious penguins, the amazing sights on the bottom, and the beautiful ice, in a second my month of intensive training in Hobart, not to mention a number of years as a diver in general, just went out the window. I was oblivious to what I was doing as a diver - didn't even think about where I was in the water column, didn't think about inflation, or anything like that. I was just plummeting to the bottom, quite oblivious to what I was doing. In diving terms, this is very foolish, in fact, downright dangerous, and the real stuff of burst ear drums and the like.

My dive partner, the supervisor of the dive program, obviously realised what was happening and that I had lost it - he was furiously swimming through the water and trying to retrieve me and bring me back to my senses. This whole incident that I have described only took several seconds, but it was enough time potentially to get myself into a lot of trouble. He caught up with me, I came to and started to think about what I was doing, I put a bit of air in my vest and we actually got on with business.

But in those first few magical seconds I had an experience which has remained with me as one of the most luminous memories that I now hold. That was the start of what became one of the greatest adventures I have ever had.

See also:

This page was last modified on 6 June 2002.